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David Scribner
Voters at Great Barrington's Annual Town Meeting listening to an appeal from Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon to pass the proposed $20 million regional school district budget.

Great Barrington Town Meeting rejects school budget, setting up district showdown

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By Monday, May 9, 2016 News 19

Great Barrington — For the first time in recent memory, the Berkshire Hills Regional School District’s $25 million budget went down to defeat at Great Barrington’s Annual Town Meeting May 9 by vote of 215 to 176, apparently the victim of taxpayer weariness and anger with the lack of a revised Regional Agreement that currently has Great Barrington paying 52 percent of school costs among the 3-district towns.

Berkshire Hills Superintendent explaining the details of the school district budget. Photo: Heather Bellow

Berkshire Hills Superintendent explaining the details of the school district budget. Photo: Heather Bellow

“I’ve been moderator for 21 years, and lived here for longer, and I’ve never seen or heard of a school budget defeated,” commented Town Moderator Edward McCormick at the conclusion of the 4-hour meeting at the Monument Mountain Regional High School auditorium.

The defeat will not affect programming this year, provided Stockbridge approves the budget next week. West Stockbridge approved it last week. Great Barrington will, however, have to hold another town meeting to appropriate the town’s $14.5 million share of school funds.

The district has seen increases in salaries and benefits due to rising insurance costs that drive the budget up every year, and this year Great Barrington’s obligation will have increased by $938,000 over last year, even though each year the district cuts close to the bone, nearly wiping out art and music programs to try to keep the town’s taxpayers from yet another heavy hit to the wallet.

The way this three town pie is divided was cited by Great Barrington taxpayers as the primary reason they overwhelmingly voted down two proposed renovation projects for 50-year-old Monument Mountain Regional High School, a building that badly needs an overhaul.

Lately, the pressure and fervor to change this agreement has increased, and school officials convened the Regional Committee Amendment Committee (RAAC) last fall to see if the three towns could work out a solution. But after a handful of meetings between representatives from each town and the school committee, it became evident that Stockbridge representatives were not interested in changing the agreement.

Monument Mountain Regional High School Principal Marianne Young.

Monument Mountain Regional High School Principal Marianne Young. Photo: David Scribner

This apparent stall out turned the heat up under Great Barrington residents, including the Green Tea Party (GTP) a newly formed group who claim their mission is to make Great Barrington economically vibrant and sustainable. Members of the group publicly encouraged town officials and residents to make a “symbolic” no vote on the budget to send a message to both the RAAC committee and state officials.

There were emotional pleas to support the budget. “It does matter the message you send to these young people and it does matter that you support public education,” said Monument High Principal Marianne Young, her voice cracking.

Roselle Chartok said this financing battle should not be fought “on the backs of thousands of students.”

And Leigh Davis said rejecting the budget to gain leverage for the deteriorating RAAC talks was playing “political football” with schoolchildren.

It may be that Chip Elitzer, who sits on RAAC and has engineered several rejected proposals to change the funding method, sealed the fate of Monday’s budget vote when he made a call to reject the budget being presented at the Annual Town Meeting as ammunition to push for a uniform tax rate at RAAC, but to vote yes on the budget at a special town meeting in 45 days in order to avoid school district financial hassles and possible state interference.

Chip Elitzer addressing the Town Meeting audience. Photo: David Scribner

Chip Elitzer addressing the Town Meeting audience. Photo: David Scribner

“We need to fix a funding mechanism that if it is not fixed, will break our schools,” he said, adding that the whole purpose of voting no in this instance was to get the district on sound financial footing to take it far into the future.

“If we don’t do it,” he said. “We’re dead in the water for another year, I guarantee it. Because Stockbridge doesn’t have to do it.”

School Committee and RAAC member Richard Dohoney told the Edge he didn’t think the budget defeat would have an “immediate impact on the district but it may be a step backwards for broader strategic goals like expanding the district.”

After the meeting ended, Selectboard member Ed Abrahams said: “Tonight, tea party members advocated voting against historic preservation, affordable housing, and the school budget. Great Barrington’s Green Tea Party advocates are doing conservative things for liberal reasons. The result is the same.”

Stay tuned for further reports of the other decisions made at Town Meeting, including a resolution opposing General Electric’s PCB dump in Housatonic and the narrow approval of CPA funds for the restoration of the Unitarian-Universalist church in Housatonic and additional funds for affordable housing at 100 Bridge Street, the former New England Log Homes property.


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19 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Rebecca Gold says:

    Is there a time limit on how long a citizen speaker has the floor? If so, I’m hoping our next moderator will enforce it. I felt like the amount of time Chip Elitzer spoke for was beyond reasonable.

    1. Roselle Chartock says:

      I agree with you, Rebecca:)
      Indeed, why have a rule if it’s not enforced.

  2. Gabrielle Senza says:

    Last night, Great Barrington voters “made a mark” by standing up for education.

    It was impressive to hear Marianne Young talk about how committed she is to inspiring students at Monument High School to “Make a Mark on the World,” and I was really moved by the conviction in her voice to instill this in our children.

    It would be not only wise, but empowering, if instead of seeing this symbolic No Vote as a message to the students that “Great Barrington doesn’t care about education” that it is seen for what it is — a message that means the opposite: “Great Barrington voters care SO much about education, that they were willing to take the courageous and very uncomfortable position of opposing a proposed school budget.”

    The budget wasn’t opposed because we think it is too high, it was opposed because we believe our kids deserve MORE. We want to see more money in the school budget so that all children in the public school system can get the education and services they deserve.

    If anyone is “against education” it would have to be the towns that are unwilling to contribute more to the district — not Great Barrington who has been carrying the lion’s share of the district’s budget since the dysfunctional regional district agreement was put in place 50 years ago.

    Last night Great Barrington voters made their mark — not just for the students in the district today, but for all the students that will follow, and who may want to raise their own families here one day.

  3. Michael Wise says:

    To correct enthusiastic overstatement: proposing to reduce the FTE staffing for art and music instruction by about 20-25 percent is not “nearly wiping out” those programs. In any event, after its budget hearing the school committee backed off from that proposal.

  4. James says:

    Gabrielle, why do you assume that all of us who voted against the budget want to send your message. Most of the people who voted no think it’s time we stopped giving the district everything it wants and start demanding some discipline. We spend too mich on BHRSD.

  5. Eric says:

    It’s important to note that the Green Tea Party has no platform, and is by no means monolithic- some voted for, and some against, most of the issues, with the possible exception of the school budget. It’s not really a party in the traditional sense, but a group of people from a wide political spectrum who want to become familiar with the issues, hold government accountable, insure good government, maintain the high quality of life in GB, and lead or lend a hand where they can. It’s a small group; nothing that happened in town meeting could have occurred apart from the underlying support of a large group of the voters at large. The GTP is mainly a voice for the voiceless.

  6. Alan Thiel says:

    GB has 70% of the 3 town total personal income as well as 70% of the students. They only pay 60% of the total property tax. Many gave up the convenience and prestige of living in the “Greediest Small Town in America” to buy a home in a town where they could afford the taxes.
    Now some in GB want to take advantage of the unfortunate way we pay for schools to shift some of their burden to those with less means of paying.
    Drop the “N” in green tea party and you get a good phonetic explanation of what’s really happening.

  7. Carl Stewart says:

    I’ll limit this comment to one peripheral point, although I must say that I very much doubt that many 7 and 8-year old students will appreciate the alleged symbolism in the “No” vote. Likely as well that parents will be convinced by Ms. Senza’s claim that she is pro-education. As a much wiser person said at Town Meeting in Monterey just a few days ago, the time and place to work out disagreements about funding schools is not at town meeting. The less wise people of the GTP, being political naifs, shouldn’t be expected to see the wisdom in this.

    But back to my one issue: I have been told that Ron Blumenthal was not allowed entrance to the meeting at Monument. If this is true, this was a blatant violation of the Commonwealth’s Open Meeting Law. While a Moderator can limit who may address the meeting and can legally prevent a non-resident from speaking at the meeting, all public meetings in Massachusetts are open to anyone who wants to attend. Whoever decided that Mr. Blumenthal could be excluded from attending violated the Open Meeting Law and should be fined and otherwise disciplined. As much as I disagree with Mr. Blumenthal’s right wing politics, I’d be happy to help him draft an appropriate complaint to the Attorney General

    1. ron blumenthal says:

      Dear Carl:

      Thank you for your offer.

      My exclusion was not personal, it was a general rule. If one is not on a pre-approved list, pre-approved by the moderator, there is no entrance for non-voters.
      There were others likewise turned away in a less than friendly way.

      Surely this is no way to encourage participation and civic engagement. If I hadn’t had the experience of being a punching bag in the Edge comments section, I would have gone home weeping [right wing politics indeed; Carl, my beloved neighbor, your sense of propriety is only topped by your inherent delightful humor].

      Instead, I went around to the other side of the building opened a side door and listened in. So no harm, though I did miss some nuance, not being able to see through a door.

      Surely we do not need the attorney general to weigh in on this. How about it town of GB – instead of giving another convoluted reason as to why this is needed, how about a clear ‘non-voters’ section, and next time, broadcast it in the cafeteria as it was done prior.

      Having coincedentally heard from a number of people on this very same issue, my sense is it won’t be a problem in the future.

      Thank you,

      Ron

  8. Michael Wise says:

    Per the definition in the Open Meeting Law, MGL Ch. 30 Sec 18, a “public body” that is subject to the law — “a multiple-member board, commission, committee or subcommittee within the executive or legislative branch or within any county, district, city, region or town, however created, elected, appointed or otherwise constituted, established to serve a public purpose” — would not include the town meeting.

    Nonetheless, it would be better policy to admit the members of the non-town-citizen public if there are enough seats.

    1. Patrick Fennell says:

      There were plenty of empty seats in at the Town Meeting.

    2. Carl Stewart says:

      Michael is correct about Town Meeting not falling within the Open Meeting Law and I regret disseminating incorrect information, Accordingly, I must withdraw the offer I made to my friend Ron Blumenthal.

      However, government should be as transparent as reasonably possible and if there is room for non-voters they should be allowed to attend all governmental meetings.

  9. Joseph Method says:

    I ended up voting Yes on the school budget, but I was on the fence until the last moment and found the arguments against to be strong. I really didn’t like the repeated attempts to mischaracterize the intentions of the symbolic no-vote faction. You could disagree with their means, or think that the cost was too high, without implying that they didn’t care about education. The pro-budget side relied heavily on sentimental appeals and kept insisting that not approving the budget would send the wrong “message”, in particular to students. But the only way people would receive the wrong message would be if they weren’t paying attention to any of the stated reasons for rejecting the budget.

    Likewise, the quote at the end from Ed Abrahams seems disingenuous. He seems to be referring to the arguments against funding the 100 Bridge Street project and the Universalist church renovation as “voting against historic preservation [and] affordable housing”. In each case a very reasonable argument was put forward that had nothing to do with being against historic preservation and affordable housing. You can’t just slap “historic preservation” or “affordable housing” on an issue and expect people to blinding vote it up, liberal or not.

  10. Norman Douglas says:

    We all recognize that the regressive property tax is the problem in financing town government and education. One way to correct this problem is for the state to enter into a revenue sharing agreement with local governments. (1 )Raise the necessary funds from a more progressive state income tax and (2) cap property taxes.

    1. Alan Thiel says:

      Agreed.
      Even a flat income tax with no deductions would be better than property tax. I think the part of the state with most of the income and little property has more votes.

      1. Norman Douglas says:

        Everyone pays property tax, whether it is built into the rent paid or your condo or your town house or your single family home. I see the political problem as an organizing issue. The towns must band together. The time is NOW.

    2. Patrick Fennell says:

      Taxes are not teh problem with GB. Spending is the problem with GB and all the school districts. It is time to merge more services, and all six districts south of Pittsfield, better education and more selections for the kids.

  11. Jon Willimas says:

    We want a good education for the children in this area, but what I’ve seen way too often, is the spending on things at the administration office, that would make you sick! They would rather have expensive fancy things, and new toys, for themselves, then spend that money on our children! Enough BHRSD!

    1. Carl Stewart says:

      Jon, could you be more specific about those “toys” that the administration is spending money on? It isn’t very fair to expect those at the BHRSD to respond without knowing where you think improper spending exists

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